The Indian state of Punjab is characterised by fields of sugarcane and wheat stretching into the horizon. Peacocks strut among the whitewashed, flat-roofed buildings. The people wear a blaze of colours and talk in the open, relaxed tongue of Punjabi.
It was in the villages of Punjab, centuries ago, that festivals such as harvest brought together communities in colourful excitement. After months of toil in the fields, the fruits of labour were celebrated by music and dancing, induced partly by the effects of ‘bhang’ (Punjabi slang for weed) on the farmers. Arms swinging and bodies twisting, this exuberant form of music came to be known as ‘bhangra’.
Today, bhangra is no less than an art form, encapsulating not only a unique form of music and dance but also the cultural identity of millions of Asian people. The contagious beat is provided by the ‘dhol’, a large double-headed drum worn around the neck. Lyrics, rooted in traditional folk songs, usually revolve around love, marriage and Sikh pride, and are sung energetically with sporadic insertions of such phrases as ‘balle balle’. Stirring up lively enthusiasm with the mere tremor of a dhol player’s hands, bhangra is still commonly associated with Indian festivals. Familiar at any Indian wedding is the sight of young and old, aunties and uncles, getting up and shaking their hips to the rhythm of a popular tune.
The history of bhangra in Britain starts in Birmingham in the 1970s when Asian immigrants in search of the sounds of home transported their love of music across the seas to produce bhangra for a small market. Over the next decade, their children began adopting bhangra as their own. By appealing to this generation, artists such as Malkit Singh became legends in the British Punjabi community. Over time, the West made its pervasive influence felt: Bhangra tunes were mixed with rap, reggae, hip-hop and R’n’B to generate a unique sound that found an eager audience. Bally Sagoo in particular began an overnight phenomenon by creating the hugely successful ‘Ragamuffin Mix’ from one of Malkit Singh’s more traditional tunes. His hit spawned even more hopeful stars, including B21: with their name based on a Birmingham postal district, this boy band occupied an almost parallel existence to other groups of the nineties, regularly topping the Bhangra charts and finding themselves unlikely superstars.
The most revolutionary phase of bhangra however is taking place today. The children that grew up listening to bhangra over the past two decades are now creating an incredible pool of talent, which is taking the music from a few underground clubs in the Midlands to the masses. With the pitiful watering down of pop music, the proliferation of manufactured bands, and the seemingly stage-managed career of every group, bhangra is a breath of fresh air to the British music scene. The highly skilful mixes and intelligent use of instruments means that bhangra appeals to people of all races.
The success story of the moment is Panjabi MC. The artist has managed to achieve the seemingly impossible by breaching the gulf from underground to mainstream with the single ‘Mundian to Bach Ke’ (Beware of boys), featuring a sample from the American hip-hop artist Busta Rhymes. The single reached the top ten in the UK pop charts after being played to popular acclaim on the London radio station Kiss FM.
And yet bhangra still has its heart in northern India, and the motivations of many of the people who listen to and create the music go far beyond the superficial. Asian communities such as those in Wembley and Southall represent the staunch refusal of Indian immigrants to assimilate and lose a connection to their rich heritage. Grocers piled high with fresh mangoes and chillies, and shops selling countless reams of beautifully embroidered silks line the streets of these parts of London. Also here are small music stores, walls plastered with posters advertising Bollywood movies and stacks of CDs and cassettes of Hindi and Punjabi songs. Here lies the seed of bhangra’s propagation.
From the dawn of time music has been an outlet for human emotion and articulated the concerns of generations. The Black youth of America, with a history of oppression and in the face of an aggressive ghetto culture, founded rap and hip-hop as a channel for their creative talents. In the same way, a growing number of young Asians in Britain have found themselves without a voice and feel that bhangra provides a unique form of personal expression.
The frustration felt by Asian immigrants came to a violent climax in 2001 when race riots in North England dominated the headlines. Growing antipathy towards asylum seekers, the rise of the BNP, and racist campaigns by the right-wing press have all lead to an uncomfortable atmosphere for minorities. For second and third generation immigrants, resolving their Asian background with being British has become increasingly difficult. In the absence of cultural icons in the media industry, the newly emerging form of bhangra has managed to express this immigrant experience:
‘I’m a first generation Indian and I’m proud of my roots. My music is the natural transgression from the traditional, to the music we witness in the west. People will always refer to this music in times to come, much like we do with the music of our forefathers.’
– Producer, Panjabi MC.
What is interesting about the music scene is the absence of misogyny and violence, so common in rap and hip-hop. Instead, bhangra lyrics often celebrate women and the positive aspects of Punjabi identity. Bhangra seems to reject all the rules common to popular music and maybe this is the key to its popularity among wider audiences. Whatever the reasons for its appeal, bhangra is unintentionally breaching cultural divides between all races in Britain. Like the adoption of chicken vindaloo as the British national dish, and the screening of Bollywood movies in UK cinemas, bhangra is a sign of flourishing integration. Rather than just assimilating, Asian immigrants are able to share their culture. Whether bhangra will continue to be a worldwide contagion is unknown, but what is certain is that a minority has found a voice… and it’s a language that everyone wants to dance to.